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When I was a kid I was an avid reader of Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous
Monsters of Filmland magazine, and it was there I first heard about the
director Tod Browning. He and his work were prominently featured in the
pages of FM, where the (still missing) London After Midnight was often
lamented as the Holy Grail of lost films. There were also frequent
references to The Unholy Three in both its silent and talkie
incarnations. It took me decades to finally catch up with the silent
version, and my response is kind of schizo; objectively, I'm aware that
in a number of ways it's absurd, and yet it's great fun, and highly
entertaining. And the main reason the movie works so well, I believe,
is the sheer charisma of Lon Chaney.
Chaney and Browning worked together many times, but this was their biggest box office success. Despite the general impression to the contrary their collaborations were not exactly horror films. In fact, as far as I can determine not one of their movies featured any supernatural elements; even the vampire of London After Midnight turns out to be a police inspector in disguise. Most of the Browning/Chaney films are crime melodramas with bizarre details stirred into the mix, often involving people from the lowest rungs of show business, such as circuses and carnivals. Chaney's characters in these stories are often afflicted with an intense, unrequited passion for a young woman (most memorably and disturbingly in The Unknown), and his behavior and actions are affected by this obsession, usually to his disadvantage, sometimes fatally so.
By the time The Unholy Three was produced Browning had developed his recurring themes and motifs into a highly effective, time-tested formula. His directorial technique is stylish in an unobtrusive way: for special emphasis he'll highlight shadows thrown on a wall, forming a silhouette of the three title characters, but otherwise he generally avoids flamboyant touches. With a story like this, he doesn't need them. The synopsis has been outlined elsewhere, but briefly it involves a trio of crooks from the sideshow world: Professor Echo the ventriloquist (Chaney) who disguises himself as an old lady, a strong man (Victor MacLaglen), and a midget (Harry Earles) who masquerades as a baby. A pet store serves as a front for their activities. The trio is actually is quintet, as they are accompanied by a thief named Rosie (Mae Busch) and a bespectacled patsy named Hector (Matt Moore) who is somehow oblivious that his employers are, well, not what they seem. Hector takes everything in stride. It's perfectly normal to him that the pet shop where he works offers not only birds and rabbits but also a dangerous gorilla in a big cage. So hey, if Hector takes it for granted, why shouldn't we? The plot turns on a jewel heist that goes awry, in part because of Prof. Echo's jealousy over Rosie. However, in this film the story is secondary to the sinister atmospherics.
While it's Chaney's performance that drives the film the supporting cast is solid -- more so, I feel, than in the talkie remake -- and the characters' interactions have a "rightness" that persuades us to overlook numerous credibility issues. As in the best Hitchcock films, we're willing to ignore gaping plot holes in order to savor the set pieces. One of the most effective sequences features a police inspector who interrogates the trio in the wake of the jewel heist. He's unaware that the jewels he seeks are inside a toy elephant at his feet, a toy that supposedly belongs to the "baby." The scene is suspenseful and funny, and, for me, the sight of Harry Earles disguised as a baby is almost as creepy as anything in an out-and-out horror movie.
The unlikely twists increase to the point of craziness in the final scenes, yet the story follows the consistent internal logic of a deeply weird dream. It's no surprise this was such a big hit in its day. I was fortunate enough to see a newly restored print of this film at the Museum of Modern Art this summer, back to back with the talkie remake. The silent version in particular went over quite well, though admittedly there were chuckles when a title card glibly announces the outcome of Prof. Echo's trial. Afterward in the lobby viewers were enthusiastic about the film, and about Lon Chaney. Seventy-five years after his death audiences are still impressed with his magnetism. So here's a tip of the hat to Forry Ackerman, who saw the Browning/Chaney films when they were new, and was right about this one all along!
Vowing revenge on the world of normal' people, a sideshow
ventriloquist, strong man & dwarf band together as THE
Following Lon Chaney's great film successes at Universal Studios, Irving Thalberg managed to entice the actor to come to MGM. Anxious to repeat the box office bonanzas of Chaney's recent past, Thalberg signed a one-picture deal with Chaney's favorite director, Tod Browning. The resulting film, THE UNHOLY THREE, was such a hit that Thalberg quickly signed Browning for a long-term contract.
Based on a story by Tod Robbins (who would also pen the inspiration for FREAKS), Browning would give the film an appropriately menacing atmosphere, with flashes of comedic wit at just the right intervals. A crime caper rather than a horror film, the chills are saved for right near the end with the rampages of a ferocious ape (actually a chimpanzee, photographed out of proportion) which no one seems surprised to find in a bird store.
While ventriloquism may seem an odd pastime to depict in a silent movie, Chaney made it all seem so sensible. A consummate artist who only now is starting to receive the proper accolades, Chaney did not need to contort limb or face to portray a little old lady. All he needed was a wig & a dress. So well was he received in this role that it was chosen to be remade five years later as Chaney's talking debut.
Muscular Victor McLaglen (a British Army champion athlete) and tiny Harry Earles (one of the few adult actors who could disguise himself as a baby) give very solid support as Chaney's wicked cronies; much of the favorable outcome of the film is due to them.
Pensive Mae Busch scores as the waifish pickpocket allied with Chaney; this very talented actress would get to shine a few years later in a series of appearances with Laurel & Hardy. In his one scene as a stern judge, Edward Connelly lends his saturnine presence to the proceedings.
"The Unholy Three" (MGM, 1925), directed by Tod Browning, is the kind
of movie only Lon Chaney could do best, playing a tough guy with a good
heart, donning a disguise or two, and coming out with one of the film's
famous lines, "That's all there is to life, folks, just a little laugh,
just a little tear." In reality, it's a change of pace for Chaney from
his previous efforts, playing a tough but sympathetic character in a
The story features three museum freaks, Hercules, the strong man (Victor McLaglen), Tweeledee, the dwarf (Harry Earles), and Professor Echo, the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney), performing in a sideshow while Echo's girl, Rosie O'Grady (Mae Busch) goes through the crowd picking pockets. When Echo comes upon an idea of a get-rich-quick scheme, he, Hercules, Tweeledee and Rosie become partners in crime as THE UNHOLY THREE. They then open a store stocked with parrots that will not talk, but Echo, disguised as Granny O'Grady, the proprietress, arranges to have the parrots "talk" only in his presence. His gal Rosie acts as "Granny's grand-daughter," with Tweeledee is disguised as Rosie's infant son and Hercules as the "infant's" uncle. With the shop as a front, THE UNHOLY THREE rob the homes of their well-to-do customers, especially when they telephone to complain that the parrots they brought does not talk, thus, having Granny and the "baby" paying them a visit and casing the place for a possible late night robbery. Also working in the shop is Hector McDonald (Matt Moore), who becomes interested in Rosie but is unaware of the operation.
Watching Lon Chaney disguised as a sweet little old lady is priceless, almost reminiscent to Tod Browning's latter melodrama of the sound era, "The Devil Doll" (MGM, 1936) in which Lionel Barrymore appeared as an escaped convict dressed as an elderly woman to elude the law, a role Chaney would have done, I'm sure, had he lived. Chaney would play Echo again in his one and only talkie of 1930 bearing the same title. With both films readily available for viewing on Turner Classic Movies, one can see and compare both versions, in spite of some changes in parts in the continuity. Along with Chaney, midget Harry Earles also repeats his Tweeledee performance.
When "The Unholy Three" was presented on public television's 13-week series tribute to MGM, "Movies, Great Movies" in 1973, its host, Richard Schickel mentioned that this 1925 version was Lon Chaney's personal favorite of all his movies and one of MGM's biggest hits of that year. It's a grand performance worthy of the "master of disguises." Although a silent movie, one would wish to hear how the Echo character would throw his voice around to fool his customers. (Watch the 1930 talkie and find out).
Also interesting is seeing a young Victor McLaglen, the future Best Actor winner of 1935's "The Informer," still rugged but a little thinner; Mae Busch (famous for her variety of roles in several Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts and features for Hal Roach in the 1930s), usually playing a tough gal, here playing against type as a co-starring love interest; and Matthew Betz as Inspector Regan. Tod Browning's direction should not go unnoticed, with one interesting scene having Chaney discussing his future plans in forming THE UNHOLY THREE to his supporters, as presented on screen in silhouettes, looking something like a "film noir" crook drama of the 1940s.
The 1925 version of THE UNHOLY THREE, clocked at 86 minutes, currently includes the same orchestral scoring on Turner Classic Movies that was composed and originally chosen for the October 12, 1973, public television presentation of "Movies, Great Movies" a 13-week series tribute to MGM's 50th anniversary of its silent movies from the 1920s, as hosted by Richard Schickel. A worthy rediscovery to Lon Chaney's filmography of MGM successes (1924-1930). (***)
A great film...period. Lon Chaney heads a group of three thieves/carnival performers as they masquerade as an old woman, a man, and a baby in a pet shop where they sell birds that talk only by ventriloquism. Once the owners get home they see the birds no longer talk and the thieves are invited into their opulent homes. Tod Browning, the director of Dracula, does a marvelous job with this film. There are scenes that are just fantastic, the best of which for me is the courtroom scene. Browning gets a lot of help, however, by some real good performances. Chaney turns in a complex performance of a ventriloquist in love, yet evil, yet with some slight conscience. The scene in the courtroom where he deliberates helping Hector is acting at its best. Throw in a great job by Mae Busch and little Harry Earles as a cigar-smoking midget disguised as a baby. The silent film is a lost art only in that we no longer view it, talk about it, review it like it should. This film and the performances within should be seen not heard.
In an effort to make more money than they do as traveling carnival show
attractions, velvet-voiced ventriloquist Lon Chaney (as Echo),
baby-impersonating dwarf Harry Earles (as Tweedledee), and strongman
Victor McLaglen (as Hercules) team up to form a gang of jewel thieves
who call themselves "The Unholy Three". The crooked trio begins
operating out of a bird shop run by Mr. Chaney, posing as sweet "Granny
O'Grady", mother of pickpocket and gang moll Mae Busch (as Rosie). The
front works like a charm, but Ms. Busch attracts the attention of
straight-flying Matt Moore (as Hector), who forms a "love triangle"
Then, an unexpected murder brings further unwelcome advances... from the police.
This was re-made as Chaney's first - and only, unhappily - sound feature, in 1930. Of the many Chaney hits, "The Unholy Three" seemed like the most obvious one to improve with sound; and, Chaney's performance in both is stellar. While the later version has problems, Chaney enhanced his already incredible performance. In this one, frequent collaborator/director Tod Browning is definitely an asset. Also remarkable is Mr. Earle, who hadn't mastered English for the re-make, but seemed fine by "Freaks" (1932); his wicked, cigar-smoking baby is classic.
"The Unholy Three" (1925) was honored as one of its year's best pictures at "Film Daily" (#2), Motion Picture Magazine (#3), and The New York Times (#3) - after winners "The Gold Rush", "The Big Parade", and "The Last Laugh". At Motion Picture, Chaney's individual performance ranked third (after "Best Actor" Emil Jannings and runner-up John Gilbert). The film is perversely appealing - which was then, and is now, a Chaney/Browning hallmark.
******** The Unholy Three (8/16/25) Tod Browning ~ Lon Chaney, Mae Busch, Harry Earles, Matt Moore
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lon Chaney was one of the greatest actors who ever lived. He expresses
more emotion in this movie with his facial expressions than many of the
actors today can do with their voices. Chaney stars as Professor Echo,a
sleazy carnival ventriloquist, who plans to pull off a crime that would
make him and his two counterparts rich. Echo a master of voices will
pose as an old lady, the sideshow midget named Tweedledee will be the
baby, and Hercules the strongman will be a bystander. Together this
team of unholy individuals open up a pet store which specializes in
selling talking parrots. These birds talk and sing in the store but
when the buyer brings them home they stop.A rich man named Arlington
buys a parrot and calls "Old Lady Mcgrady" to come have a look at it.
Tweedledee notices a red ruby necklace.
"Don't worry Grannie will buy you a nice set of red pearls like that" Echo's girlfriend Rosie is falling in love with Hector the employee at the store. Echo is beginning to lose his concentration and his partners plot against him. Hercules murders Arlington and after Hector proposes to Rosie Echo plans to frame him for the murder.
Yes the plot is a bit silly at times but Chaney and his cast tell it with the utmost sincerity. Chaney's Echo is a sad character,not necessarily evil but selfish. His love for Rosie redeems him and his evil ways at the end of the movie. Chaney is one of the greats. He creates a vivid character. Man of a Thousand Faces is the correct title for him but here he doesn't need his make-up to create a face just his perfect acting skills.
The Unholy Three is a magnificent piece of filmmaking. The actors really fit into their roles. The mixture of thriller, comedy and drama is perfect. Tod Browning shows his talents. This film deserves to be shown more. I saw it at the Umea Filmfestival this September with newly written live music that made a great movie even better.
I had an afternoon free so I decided to watch the two versions of this
Lon Chaney classic back to back, beginning with this one -- Tod
Browning's silent original. It's the story of a crooked carnival
ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) who teams up with the midget (Harry Earles)
and strong man (Victor McLaglen ) for a series of robberies. Chaney
dresses as an old woman and Earles plays a baby to perfect their
scheme. In many ways this was a precursor to the popular Little
Rascals/Our Gang short subject FREE EATS, where a couple of gangsters
act as parents to a couple of little people dressed as infants,
mistakenly referred to as "fidgets".
Whether it's the silent version or sound remake, I thought this was a wildly entertaining story either way, though it's difficult to fairly judge one film or the other when they're viewed together so closely like this. There are pros and cons to both movies for me. The strength of Browning's silent version was that in many ways it felt much more stylish and better crafted, possibly with better production values... but I found I preferred Lila Lee as Rosie O'Grady (from the sound version) to the silent actress here, Mae Busch. The 1925 original perhaps feels a little too long, which is the only thing which kept it from being perfect for me. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if most fans prefer the silent film simply because it was directed by Tod Browning. My advice is to see them both! ***1/2 out of ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Say what you will about the plot or with music or not, I enjoyed the
hell outta this thing (Without music), and just Loved Lon Chaney in it.
He was such a shady-lookin' character, with such an ugly, creased,
fascinating face. One that had both light and darkness in it. And the
man could act. It's not hard to see why he was the top box-office draw
at one time.
Also, I gotta give a shout out to big man Victor McLaglen, future Gypo Nolan from John Ford's "The Informer". Here he's not as drunk or beefed-out yet, but he's lean and mean and does just fine.
And Super-Props to the biggest little man Harry Earles, future avenged cuckold in "Freaks" (Awesome!) and yes, one of those damned annoying munchkins from Oz. But here, he's one dastardly little fake-baby criminal. In his first scene, what he does to the kid in the crowd? So Bad. And smoking a cigar and talking' some smack from his high-chair, like he was imitating Pacino from "Scarface"? Even Better. (Special Request for the Cinema- Gods: More midget characters like this in movies, please.)
But far and away the Best is still Lon Chaney, as Professor Echo, the Ventriloquist. Performing in a silent movie as somebody who "throws his voice" for a living, he carries the crazy plot, lights up the screen, and just does such an amazing job.
My favorite thing in the movie is toward the very end. When the girl comes back to him at the sideshow because he's fulfilled his end of the bargain, but then he does the decent thing and lets her go back to the man she loves, and she's walked away after he's said goodbye through his dummy, and she's turned and waved and left, there's a moment where Chaney rests the dummy's head on his shoulder and "they both" sigh and watch her walk away. The look on his face... It's just so sad and beautiful. One of the greatest images in film ever.
Thank You, Lon Chaney, wherever you are.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This was definitely a career highlight for Lon Chaney. It showed why he
was a master of disguise and also why he was so beloved by the movie
going public - no matter how bad the character was, he always kept a
little humanity in his heart. With direction by Todd Browning and based
on a novel by Tod Robbins (his story "Spurs" was turned into the film
"Freaks"), "The Unholy Three" was an evocative and macabre thriller.
Professor Echo (Lon Chaney) is a circus ventriloquist, who is in league with strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen) and an evil midget Tweedledee(a sensational Harry Earles). They call themselves "The Unholy Three" and together with Rosie (Mae Busch) they work a pickpocketing sideline. But Echo has plans - in the disguise of sweet Granny O'Grady, he opens a pet shop full of talking parrots - strangely enough, once they are bought the parrots stop talking!!! This is Echo's big scheme - when Granny is called to the various homes to find out what is wrong with the birds, Tweedledee, disguised as a child, "Little Willie" cases the place and within a few days the house has been robbed and the police are baffled.
John Arlington has bought a parrot and invites Granny O'Grady to his house to see if she can coax the bird to talk. At Arlington's home, Tweedledee is dazzled by some priceless jewelry and when, later that night Echo is waylaid into trimming a Christmas tree - Tweedledee, who is the real evil mastermind, convinces Hercules to do the job with him alone. They do but kill Arlington and leave a small child close to death - Echo shows by his reaction - "You....Filth", that he is not like the other two, that deep down he has feelings. The police close in - but the person they arrest is Hector (Matt Moore). He is completely innocent and has been hired to front the shop and be a "fall guy" in case the worst happens. Rosie and Hector, though, have fallen in love and she will do whatever it takes to free him - even sharing a loveless life with Echo.
The plot is quite complex - there is even a giant monkey (actually a cleverly enlarged chimpanzee) that Echo keeps in a room, just in case the others "get out of line". The courtroom scene is a marvellous display of the emotions and expressions that Lon Chaney can create. He slips into court and because Hector only knows him as Granny, he doesn't recognise him. Echo then sends him a note with instructions - if Hector will go back on the stand then Echo will do the rest. There is a scene that shows Chaney's face displaying a myriad of emotions, from apprehension, fear, happiness and finally relief.
Aside from Lon Chaney's acting brilliance, Harry Earles is a revelation as the depraved Tweedledee. A couple of his scenes were quite shocking. His introduction, at the beginning of the film as a carnival attraction shows his character in a few seconds. During a scene in which people taunt and make fun of him, he kicks a small child in the face and then has to be restrained. When he and Hercules come back from the robbery "gone wrong" - he is laughing as he recalls how the victims begged for mercy. Harry Earles found the role of a lifetime in "Tweedledee" the crazed and evil midget. It was quite extraordinary how he could convincingly switch from being an angry, cigar smoking crook to a little baby playing with his toys. In one nail biting scene when the police come to question them, the jewels are hastily put into a toy elephant and of course it is the toy the policeman picks up and starts to tinker with. Mae Busch is also very good as Rosie - she may not have the flapper prettiness of Lila Lee, who played Rosie in the 1930 remake, but she makes Rosie real.
Apart from the "gaffe" of outdoor scenery being obviously a painted backdrop (when Echo and Rosie are talking in the woods, their shadows show) a few of the indoor scenes seem to be painted sets - it just adds to the illusion, mystery and moodiness of the film.
Highly, Highly Recommended.
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